When I was covering the Colonial this spring for CBS Sports, Ian Baker- Finch and I made a visit to Shady Oaks, the Texas club Ben Hogan called home for many years. The golf professional offered to let us practice with the actual last set of clubs he used. What an amazing experience! Hogan’s clubs were much flatter and open (about three degrees) than I expected. In fact, after playing with his clubs I understood his swing a lot better. No wonder he wished he had two right hands. They were needed to square up the clubface. I had also forgotten how much smaller the wood heads were back then.
Everyone blames the longer-flying ball for super-sizing golf, but equipment and golf course conditioning have done as much if not more to change the game. Today’s golfers would not take such a fearless rip at the ball if they had to play with Hogan’s thimble-size driver head. Course conditioning has also played a role in changing the game. In Hogan’s day, fairway conditions varied widely and greens were slower, so the best players needed a great pair of hands. Today, many instructors try to take the hands out of the full swing and the putting stroke entirely. Plus, golf course designs have changed; today’s courses force players to fly the ball over bunkers and water hazards. In Hogan’s day, players ran the ball along the ground much more often.
Hogan was born 100 years ago this past August, and he remains as much a giant in the game today as he ever was. However, I think many people focus too much on the technical aspects of Hogan’s swing. What he really teaches us isn’t about swing plane, it’s about his unbelievable drive to get better and how he found a swing that he could repeat under pressure. Plus he made sure his equipment was fit to what he needed to do with his swing. People don’t try to find their own swing anymore. Instead, they try to copy someone else’s. It wasn’t his golf swing that made Hogan great, it was his work ethic in finding and maintaining a swing that worked for him. That sometimes gets lost in translation.